Understanding your Assignment
The key tasks at the start of any assignment are:
- Read the assignment brief carefully as soon as you receive it. Do not put this off—reading the assignment brief at the beginning will save you time, stress, and problems later. An assignment can look pretty straightforward at first, particularly if the lecturer has provided lots of information. That does not mean it will not take time and effort to complete; you may even have to learn a new skill to complete the assignment.
- Define the key words e.g. if the assignment wants you to discuss pedagogy or aerobic capacity make sure you understand what these terms mean.
- What is the word count? (Generally 10% introduction, 80% main body, 10% conclusion).
- What type of assignment is it…Report/Essay/Reflection?
- Which Learning Outcomes relate to the assignment?
- Do not hesitate to ask/email your tutors about anything you do not understand. Lecturers would prefer to set you straight before you hand the assignment in. That is also when you will find their feedback most useful.
Always keep a record of ANY SOURCES that you look at.
Interpreting the assignment
Ask yourself a few basic questions as you read and jot down the answers.
- Why did your lecturer ask you to do this particular task?
- Who is your audience?
- What kind of evidence do you need to support your ideas?
- What kind of writing style is acceptable?
Try to look at the question from the point of view of the lecturer and recognise that there is a reason for giving you this assignment and for giving it to you at a particular point in the module. In every assignment, the tutor has a challenge for you. This challenge could be anything from demonstrating an ability to think clearly to demonstrating an ability to use the library. See the assignment not as a vague suggestion of what to do but as an opportunity to show that you can handle the course material as directed. Assignments give you more than a topic to discuss—they ask you to do something with the topic. Keep reminding yourself of that. Be careful to avoid the other extreme as well: do not read more into the assignment than what is actually there.
Why did your lecturer ask you to do this particular task?
Of course, your lecturer has given you an assignment so that he or she will be able to assess your understanding of the course material and give you an appropriate grade. But there is more to it than that. Your lecturer has tried to design a learning experience of some kind. Your lecturer wants you to think about something in a particular way for a particular reason. If you read the course description at the beginning of your syllabus, review the assigned readings, and consider the assignment itself, you may begin to see the plan, purpose, or approach to the subject matter that your lecturer has created for you. If you still aren’t sure of the assignment’s goals, try asking the lecturer.
Key terms: finding those active verbs
Here are some common key words and definitions to help you think about assignment terms.
Information words ask you to demonstrate what you know about the subject, such as who, what, when, where, how, and why.
Relation words ask you to demonstrate how things are connected.
Interpretation words ask you to defend ideas of your own about the subject. Do not see these words as requesting opinion alone (unless the assignment specifically says so), but as requiring opinion that is supported by concrete evidence. Remember examples, principles, definitions, or concepts from class or research and use them in your interpretation.
Who is your audience?
Now, what about your reader? Most undergraduates think of their audience as the lecturer. True, your lecturer is a good person to keep in mind as you write, but for the purposes of a good assignment, think of your audience as someone like your house mates: smart enough to understand a clear, logical argument, but not someone who already knows exactly what is going on in your particular assignment. Remember, even if the lecturer knows everything there is to know about your assignment topic, they still have to read your assignment and assess your understanding.
Aiming a paper at your audience happens in two ways: you make decisions about the tone and the level of information you want to convey.
- Tone means the “voice” of your assignment. Should you be chatty, formal, or objective? Usually you will find some happy medium—you do not want to alienate your reader by sounding condescending or superior, but you do not want to, um, like, ‘totally dis the man, you know’? Eschew ostentatious erudition: some students think the way to sound academic is to use big words. Be careful—you can sound ridiculous, especially if you use the wrong big words.
- The level of information you use depends on who you think your audience is. If you imagine your audience as your lecturer and that they already know everything you have to say, you may find yourself leaving out key information that can cause your argument to be unconvincing and illogical. However, you do not have to explain every single word or issue. Think about it, if you are telling your house mate what happened on your favorite science fiction TV show last night, you do not tell them every small detail: “First a dark-haired white man of average height, wearing a suit and carrying a flashlight, walked into the room. Then a purple alien with fifteen arms and at least three eyes turned around. Then the man smiled slightly. In the background, you could hear a clock ticking. The room was fairly dark and had at least two windows that I saw.” You also do not say, “This guy found some aliens. The end.” Find some balance of useful details that support your main point.
Make an Argument
With a few exceptions, you are probably being asked to make an argument. You must convince your audience. It is easy to forget this aim when you are researching and writing; as you become involved in your subject matter, you may become enmeshed in the details and focus on learning or simply telling the information you have found. You need to do more than just repeat what you have read. Your writing should have a point, and you should be able to say it in a sentence.
Convincing the reader of your argument is the goal of academic writing. It doesn’t have to say “argument” anywhere in the assignment for you to need one. Look at the assignment and think about what kind of argument you could make about it instead of just seeing it as a checklist of information you have to present.
What kind of evidence do you need?
There are lots of different types of proof or evidence. Here are several common types:
- Einstein proof—a famous (or not so famous) smart person agrees with you or says something you can use to back up your point. This kind of evidence can come from course materials or outside research. Be sure to reference these.
- Case proof—a case in which your point works or the other person’s point does not work to demonstrate your idea. These may come from your experience, hypothetical situations, or from outside sources.
- Fact proof—statistical, “objective” information.
- For example proof—examples from the subject or text you are studying to back up your focused point. For example (!), you might quote several of Hamlet’s lines to try to establish that he is depressed.
Make sure you are clear about this part of the assignment, because your use of evidence will be crucial in writing a successful assignment. You are not just learning how to argue; you are learning how to argue with specific types of materials and ideas.
What kind of writing style is acceptable?
You cannot always tell from the assignment just what sort of writing style is expected. The lecturer may be really laid back in class but still expect you to sound formal in your academic writing. Or they may be fairly formal in class and ask you to write a reflection assignment where you need to use “I” and speak from your own experience.
Try to avoid false associations of a particular field with a style (“art historians like unusual creativity,” or “political scientists just give facts”) and look instead to the types of readings you have been given in class. No one expects you to write like Plato—just use the readings as a guide for what is standard or preferable in your discipline. When in doubt, ask your lecturer about the level of formality expected.
Tricks that don’t work
Your lecturers are not fooled when you:
- Spend more time on the cover page than the essay—graphics and cool binders are no replacement for a well-written assignment.
- Use huge fonts, wide margins, or extra spacing to make it look longer—these tricks are immediately obvious to the eye.
- Use a assignment from another class that covered “sort of similar” material. Again, the lecturer has a particular task for you to fulfill in the assignment that usually relates to course material and lectures. Your other assignment may not cover this material.
- Get all wacky and “creative” before you answer the question. Showing that you are able to think beyond the boundaries of a simple assignment can be good, but you must do what the assignment calls for first. Again, check with your lecturer. A humorous tone can be refreshing for someone grading a stack of assignments, but it will not get you a good grade if you have not fulfilled the task.
Ultimately, critical reading of assignments leads to skills in other types of reading and writing. If you get good at figuring out what the real goals of assignments are, you are going to be better at understanding the goals of all of your classes and areas of study.